Pope Francis is awesome. Of course a progressive Protestant has long-standing issues with the RCC when it gets into certain waters but given a Pope is going to be a Catholic man, this one is the best kind Catholic. He recently published his Apostolic Exhortation to discuss the joy of the gospel & evangelism. The document as a whole is an excellent way to catch the warm pastoral style and tone of Pope Francis and it’s also an excellent introduction to Catholic Social teachings on the economy and Capitalism.
This may be a new document but the critique of our global economic system isn’t new to Rome. Many Americans are just familiar with Catholic teachings on birth control, abortion, or gender but even some Catholic friends of mine were shocked to read Francis’ critique of the economic order. Conservative economic bloggers are getting a bit worried suggesting this “smells like socialism” and at the Daily Beast they title their commentary “Pope Francis vs Capitalism” but emphasis the Pope also puts us consumers feet to the fire.
Here’s what is new to me in the Pope’s remarks: he recognizes that the center of power is no longer in the Nation-State and thus the people in democratic states no longer have power to regulate, redistribute, and ensure the rights of people are recognized. The global market can export the exploitation, import its fruits to the consumers, & avoid being politically subject to the communities involved in the exchange. To get at the Pope’s new material I thought I would turn it into an interview with him. Of course if the Pope wants to come on the Podcast I would skype the Vatican anytime of day! The questions are mine and the answers are quotes from the Pope.
Q: As Pope of a global communion how would you characterize the global situation?
A: In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day-to-day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.
Q: Why direct the criticism toward the economy? Haven’t free markets brought more people out of poverty than any other system or institution?
A: In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
Q: Why shouldn’t Christians address global poverty through charity instead of political action?
A: While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.
Q: Is the problem the system itself or the present iteration?
A: In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
Q: What can you point to that highlights the brokenness of the present order? Is there really some unique or intense problem that needs to be addressed in consumer capitalism?
A: Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
Q: How did we get here? You are describing the situation in theological terms which seems a bit strong don’t you think?
A: One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
Q: If the power today is held in the economy and not within politics, what do you have to say to those wielding economic influence?
A: I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”
Q: Wow, that is about as likely to happen as a female Pope!
A: A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.
Q: Hey let’s finish this later. I gotta get some sleep for the sunrise sales on Black Friday!
A: No comment.